"I don't reject you, you don't reject me either. Forgot already?"
Editor(s): Jelly, namio
The troops left Feng City with 30 men in front and 52 following behind, guarding the carriage in between.
All in all, 82 men remained. When they had been guarding the pass, the other 18 had been covering Li Qingcheng and were killed by arrows at the top of the Feng Pass. Li Qingcheng ordered for their bodies to be cremated; he collected their ashes and brought them with him on the way. After they entered the Central Plains, he would hand them over to their families, giving them proper financial support while he was at it.
When he came, Li Qingcheng brought along one man at his side, and now, when he left, he only brought with him Fang Qingyu, Tang Hong, Zhang Mu, as well as a group of skirmishers allocated to him by Wang Yichen. At this time, Li Qingcheng was positioned in the middle of the carriage, his head full of jet-black, long hair hung loose as he leaned on his seat, lost in thought.
The other three in the carriage, Zhang Mu, Tang Hong, and Fang Qingyu sat on each side. A table was put in the center of the carriage, on which a map of the Great Yu's sixteen provinces was spread.
A wooden rack had been nailed in the carriage. It was currently swaying, and the arctic gyr brought by Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu was perching on it.
In a few days, that falcon fledgling had actually grown a lot. Right now, it was sleeping, its head buried under its wings.
"Where to next?" Tang Hong asked.
Still in a daze, Li Qingcheng replied, "I don't know either. What do you think?"
That day, Li Qingcheng had set out with the whole army. Yet even after they started their journey, there was still no direction; they only blindly followed the Western Plains' military route. This decision might sound outrageous and unimaginable, but it was actually the result of his careful consideration.
The news regarding the pyrrhic victory at the Northern Border, the crown prince guarding the Feng Pass and killing the Xiongnu King's army until they ran away in fear, had not yet spread to the capital. So, the sooner they hit the road, the safer it was for them. Other matters would have to be put off for later. After all, they had time for everything else in the future.
Fang Qingyu spoke up, "You should've incorporated some of the Northern Expedition and the Feng Pass' troops into our army. With only 82 men on hand, what can we do with that number?"
Li Qingcheng replied in a lazy manner, "I dare not.
"Our current situation, although we did win, our side has also lost more than 10,000 men. If I took all the soldiers with me and the Xiongnus made another move, returning in a swirl of dust, who would guard the pass?
"Moreover," Li Qingcheng unhurriedly said, "if I brought over more than 10,000 troops with us and entered the Central Plains, since we won't be able to attack the capital for some time, how am I supposed to feed them all?"
Fang Qingyu sneered. "I thought you would lead the Feng Pass's remaining 10,000 or so cavalry, bringing them to storm the capital in a grand and majestic manner."
Zhang Mu coldly answered, "Can't."
Li Qingcheng hummed in agreement. "Believe it or not, if I took even a step forward, Arius would launch a surprise attack on me from behind. Even if I decided to throw caution to the wind and recapture the capital first and then turn my head back to deal with the Xiongnus who are entering the pass, it would still cost me a great deal of manpower. I don't fancy such a situation."
"There are sixteen provinces in the Central Plains and two outside." Li Qingcheng signaled them to look at the map. "Huangyi, Mengze, and the other six are too far. Taking a detour would take a long time, and it’ll be hard to mobilize troops, let's not consider them for now. The Imperial Province is under the direct jurisdiction of the capital, so it's not feasible. Donghai is also too far, moreover, the Meng Lake stands between it and us, let's exclude it. The other three provinces, Yan, Yun, and Qing are all too cold and pretty much barren, so rule them out as well. That's a total of thirteen provinces excluded, there are five remaining. Where do you think we should go first?
"Yang Province in Jiangnan, Ting Province in Western Plains, and Jiang Province to the south of Central Plains are all regions with rich natural resources. while Guan Province is surrounded by mountains and seas. Although, Qin Province is a region that has always been beyond the control of the court, and it's also a gathering place for a lot of Jianghu people that relies mainly on the influence of both righteous and evil forces."
"I think Yang Province is good," Tang Hong said. "When I was younger, my father brought me over to Yang Province. Fish and rice are abundant there, and people are working in peace and full of joy."
"First, let's talk about Ting Province, which spans from the Western Plains all the way to the north. Are you familiar with Ting Province's governor?" Li Qingcheng asked, shooting a glance at Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu nodded, but Fang Qingyu butted in, "Except for Qin Province, there's no doubt that all provincial governors are loyal to the court. If we go to Ting and show our faces in front of the governor, we'll most likely be arrested."
Li Qingcheng slowly nodded. Yu Country's centralized government system was strict to the extreme. The court would send a governor and a field marshal to each of the provinces; the governors only had to answer to the emperor, and each year, they would send an imperial envoy to meet once, while the field marshals were in charge of all troops of their respective provinces. These two were strictly prohibited from having any collusions with regional influential families.
However, other than governors and field marshals, all provinces still had their own prominent parties, namely, those distinguished clans and families. Although these families didn't wield any political power, they were extremely rich. Back then when Taizu of the Yu Country started his plan to unify the Central Plains, it was only because the Jiang, Ting, and the other provinces' families had provided the funds needed that he managed to achieve success.
At the same time, after Li Qingcheng's father emperor had ascended the throne, he gave them all suitable compensation —— almost all of those families' children made their debut inside the court and were given official ranks ranging from one to five. From the dynasty's grand secretariat and generals, to its officials from the six ministries, many of them also took those families' daughters as wives; these factions would then recommend and choose each other, forming a dense network of relationships.
Now, the imperial throne had been usurped. After Li Qingcheng calmed the Northern Border, he had more or less sorted out that he himself already had the meritorious service of resisting the Xiongnus' invasion, that he really wasn't just a total waste of a crown prince that had achieved nothing, and could seek assistance from all of Central Plains' provinces.
Although, with only this number of troops on hand, it was still unknown how many provinces would back them, and how far they would be willing to support them in the future.
"None of you know any regional powers?" Li Qingcheng had contemplated for a long time before opening his mouth again.
Zhang Mu said, "The huang jade."
Li Qingcheng spoke, "The huang jade was to be delivered to the Sun family. I asked Tang Hong to dispatch someone to deliver the letter, and now we’ve received their reply. I was too busy guarding the pass these past few days and haven't read much."
Zhang Mu asked, "Where."
Bending down, Li Qingcheng pulled out a small box from the bottom of the carriage, which only contained a pure, crystal-clear white jade.
Zhang Mu, "Letter."
Li Qingcheng, "There's no letter."
Zhang Mu took the huang jade and wore it as a ring; now, that jade, which was a combination of half huang and half ring, rested quietly between Zhang Mu's fingers. Li Qingcheng continued, "The Sun family replied that they had to see the owner of the huang jade before they would agree to give us the things. If the owner came, the Sun family would have no second thoughts then."
Fang Qingyu laughed out loud. Zhang Mu's eyes were filled with rage.
The corners of Li Qingcheng's mouth were faintly pulled. "The human heart has always been hard to fathom, it's not your fault."
Tang Hong said, "What if it's a plot to lure you in? You want to personally present yourself and visit them?"
Coldly, Zhang Mu said, "Can't be."
Fang Qingyu said, "Don't go throw your life away ba."
Suddenly, Zhang Mu flew into a rage. "Can't be! The Suns are loyal subjects!"
Li Qingcheng asked, "Why do you say so?"
Zhang Mu just shook his head; he was irritated to the extreme he didn't want to utter any more words.
Li Qingcheng contemplated it for a short while before saying, "Then let's go to Ting Province ba, find the Sun family and strike up a conversation with them. We'll see what happens next."
All of a sudden, Zhang Mu said, "The Sun family's eldest daughter was originally meant to be the empress. Fang Qingyu, you don't know?"
Fang Qingyu was stunned speechless.
In a word, several people's emotions stirred. Li Qingcheng vaguely understood a little: when the former emperor was still on the throne, he made a decision for the crown prince to take a girl from the Sun family to be his wife, and most likely, Zhang Mu knew the inside story. But, when Li Qingcheng heard the talk about this betrothal with his own ears, a strange, indescribable feeling sprouted inside his heart.
"I do not wish to marry a woman I haven't met yet," Li Qingcheng said.
Zhang Mu didn't say anything, and Li Qingcheng also stayed quiet for a moment before he began to instruct, "All of you leave and tell people we're going to leave for Ting Province. There are too many people; Fang Qingyu, bring ten people, take the goods and follow me out. Tang Hong, you take the rest and wait for orders outside of Ting City."
These several people opened the curtain and climbed out of the carriage. Li Qingcheng continued, "Mu-ge, stay."
"Why do I remember that the Empress said this old matter regarding the crown prince's betrothal referred to another family," Fang Qingyu absent-mindedly said as he got off the carriage.
Li Qingcheng furrowed his brows. "Come back. Which family?"
Zhang Mu said, "There's nothing."
Standing outside the carriage, Fang Qingyu sneered as he said, "There is."
Zhang Mu coldly said, "Fang Qingyu, the late emperor ordered not to tell."
Li Qingcheng said, "Father Emperor is dead, I have the final say now. Tell me, Fang Qingyu."
Fang Qingyu hesitated. "This subject isn't very clear about this matter, and the Empress had only mentioned it briefly, but it was a marriage that had been decided before Your Highness was born. It was said that at that time, that family of the Western Plains had followed the former emperor on his campaign to unite the land, and so, if their descendants were a man and woman, then…"
Zhang Mu roared all of a sudden. "That family has been exterminated!"
Li Qingcheng got startled to the point he shuddered; he didn't know what made Zhang Mu so furious like this. He quickly instructed, "Fang Qingyu, get lost now!"
Smiling unrestrained, Fang Qingyu walked away.
Li Qingcheng asked, "What's the matter?"
Zhang Mu didn't say a word. Li Qingcheng said, "I won't put the blame on you. Just tell me, which family?"
Zhang Mu stiffly replied, "I don't know. The late emperor sealed my mouth."
Li Qingcheng had no choice but to drop the subject. For a moment, there was no sound inside the carriage. Zhang Mu wanted to get off the carriage as well, but Li Qingcheng said, "Stay. I didn't permit you to leave."
Zhang Mu, his hands both clenched into fists, stood upright and was silent as ever.
Li Qingcheng kept away from the subject that Fang Qingyu stirred up before. He asked, "Mu-ge, you believe in the Sun family."
Zhang Mu slowly nodded. Li Qingcheng pressed on, "But I don't want to take their daughter as a wife."
Zhang Mu said, "You have to get married when you grow up."
Li Qingcheng also didn't understand what revolved in his mind then; without thinking, he spoke, "Since you're doing everything for me, at that time, you can also help me go to the bridal chamber as well."
Zhang Mu said, "You'll understand."
Li Qingcheng sighed.
Zhang Mu said nothing more; he turned around and got out of the carriage.
Li Qingcheng said, "Wait, come up."
Zhang Mu got into the carriage once more. Li Qingcheng said, "Nothing, never mind."
Li Qingcheng sat all alone in the carriage, a kind of indiscernible feeling inside him. He wanted to ask Zhang Mu to come and say something, but Zhang Mu was silent most of the time; if Li Qingcheng conversed with him, it would be him doing all the talking himself most of the time. Even if Zhang Mu was called to sit by his side, even if he said a couple of words, or even if they faced each other day and night, he still would never be able to get what he wanted.
What do I really want? Li Qingcheng couldn't even answer himself.
When Zhang Mu was around, Li Qingcheng would feel an indescribable feeling of peace, as if someone was standing in front of him, covering him. Not only it made him fearless, it was also as if they had a past. Zhang Mu was like a shadow that accompanied him, a shadow he saw first thing in the morning when he woke up and opened his eyes. With him by his side, Li Qingcheng felt like they’d shared a past, although he didn't know what kind since Zhang Mu never talked to him about it.
But with him standing there, Li Qingcheng gave birth to an idea: Zhang Mu was carrying with him all of his memories, as well as the compilation of his forgotten life.
He, for countless times, thought of opening his mouth, but he didn't know what to ask. Moreover, every time it happened, when he wished for more answers, Zhang Mu was like air; he didn't give any confirmation, yet also didn't refute at the same time.
As if one wished to scratch an itch inside of one's boot, yet scratched the outside of the boot instead.
Li Qingcheng thought and thought about it. He then took two pieces of silver and called Zhang Mu over again.
"I'm giving you this," Li Qingcheng, on the carriage window, said to Zhang Mu, who was clad in iron armor as he rode his horse. "The other day, I rewarded Tang Hong with a polearm. I see you all also lack nothing, so I'm giving this silver to you to spend elsewhere."
Zhang Mu said "don't want" and spurred his horse away.
Li Qingcheng shouted, "Come back!"
Zhang Mu turned his horse again. From a distance, Fang Qingyu watched Zhang Mu appear like a fool, one moment moving forward and one moment backward, over and over for a total of five or six times. He finally couldn't stand it and said, "Don't want? Give to me ba."
Li Qingcheng said, "I don't reject you, you don't reject me either. Forgot already?"
At this, Zhang Mu then took the silver. Li Qingcheng shot a glance at Fang Qingyu who was catching up with them; he took out more silver and rewarded it before dismissing him.
He still felt that everything was beside the point. No matter what Li Qingcheng did to Zhang Mu, everything had no meaning, and the answer wasn't the one he wanted.
Fang Qingyu got into the carriage.
Li Qingcheng frowned. "Who told you to come inside?"
Fang Qingyu smiled. "I came in to express my gratitude. I thought you were only thinking about that mute, but I now know that you have me in your mind as well. Qing-ge is very glad."
Li Qingcheng felt content. Now this was what was called having the ability to talk. After being rewarded, Zhang Mu still hadn't shown any sign of movement; it truly made one want to scold him.
In spite of these thoughts, Li Qingcheng didn't show any sign of being happy nor mad on the surface. He faintly said, "I rewarded you only out of convenience. Since you've finished expressing your gratitude, you can also conveniently get lost now."
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.